Representation of Insured and Insurer
Opinion rules that an attorney retained by an insurer to defend its insured may not advise insurer or insured regarding the plaintiff's offer to limit the insured's liability in exchange for an admission of liability.
Driver One sued Driver Two for personal injury sustained in a motor vehicle accident. Driver One is represented by Attorney A. The automobile liability insurance company (Liability Co.) providing coverage to Driver Two retained Attorney X, who has appeared for and is engaged in the defense of Driver Two.
The complaint filed by Attorney A seeks only compensatory damages. It does not allege conduct by Driver Two that would support a claim for punitive damages and does not ask for punitive damages. There is no known evidence to support an allegation of conduct on the part of Driver Two that would support a claim for punitive damages, and liability for the accident is unclear.
Attorney A has proposed to Attorney X that the parties enter into a binding consent order, stipulation, or other agreement which would provide that Driver Two admits liability for damages arising out of the accident, but would provide further that no judgment shall be enforceable in excess of the auto liability insurance coverage provided by Liability Co.
The proposal appears to be in the best interest of Driver Two, because it would fully protect Driver Two from personal liability and would put at risk only the liability coverage that Liability Co. has agreed it provides to Driver Two.
How should Attorney X handle the proposal communicated by Attorney A?
Because Attorney X represents both the insured (Driver Two) and the insurer (Liability Co.) in connection with the defense of the action, Attorney X has an obligation to communicate the proposal to both of them. Rule 6. However, because of the potential conflict between the interests of the insured (who would likely favor the agreement) and the insurer (who may be adversely impacted by the admission), Attorney X may not advise either of them concerning the advisability of accepting the proposal. See RPC 91. Rule 5.1. Attorney X should advise the parties that it would be appropriate to consider employing separate counsel on the limited questions presented.
Does Attorney X's assessment of the probability of an adverse verdict, on issues of liability for compensatory or punitive damages, make a difference?
Does it make any difference whether, in the opinion of Attorney X, any verdict against Driver Two for damages, if reached, will probably be much less than, or somewhere close to, or much more than, the liability coverage that Liability Co. has agreed it provided Driver Two?